Changing the tune

Sep. 8—Cecilia Violetta López didn't really want to attend the opera that night.

She was a vocal performance student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a number of her peers and colleagues would be singing and in the orchestra pit. So she went with an open mind, and now even several years later, she remembers minute details about her life-changing experience.


Mariposa Que Vuela: An Evening with Cecilia Violetta López

6 p.m. September 23

National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 4th Street SW, Albuquerque

$22 to $42;

"I was a total newbie and had no idea what to expect," she says. "I had never been to a live theater, and I remember seeing the people trickle into the theater trying to find their seats with the programs in their hands. I could see into the orchestra pit, and a lot of my classmates were tuning their instruments. Even that, the prelude to the actual show, I was kind of taken aback. 'This is neat. I've never seen this before.' And then the music started."

It was La Boheme. And López, who grew up singing ranchera and mariachi songs while working in the beet fields alongside her mother and elder brother, was instantly entranced. She didn't know whether the story would be a comedy or a tragedy — and it didn't matter.

Near the end, when Mimi is nearing her tragic fate, López says she turned to her husband and said, "She's going to be OK." And when she wasn't?

López, who will be staging a recital at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on September 23, has never been the same.

"I was so moved to tears," she says. "I was in shock. I walked out of that theater, and as we were walking to the parking garage, I said, 'What my friends did on that stage is what I want to do.'

"It kind of transported me back to being with my mom. I wouldn't say I became obsessed, but I really wanted to show the voice faculty at UNLV that I wanted to pursue becoming an opera singer. I practiced and practiced and practiced. I auditioned three times, and they denied me twice. They either got sick of me auditioning, or they saw some vocal growth."

The soprano later went on to sing Mimi with Opera Orlando, and a decade into her career, she's built her name around another famous role. She's starred as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata 13 times, and she's already booked for another performance at Florida Grand Opera next year.

López starred in Rossini's Othello this summer at Central City Opera and has engagements with Opera Orlando and Opera Idaho between now and February.

But her life, she says, could've gone in another direction.

López left her hometown of Rupert, Idaho, at age 18 and married young. She had a son and started a career as an orthopedic technician in Las Vegas, where she tended to wounds, scheduled surgeries, and did post-op work. López loved working with people and healing them but didn't feel fulfilled.

That was the first turning point in her journey: She went back to school at UNLV and double-majored in vocal performance and music education. This way, she thought, she could teach as a fallback if she needed one.

Her mom, Maria López, had always told her that if she started something, she should see it through. But she was now a mother and a spouse and a double major, still trying to find her voice. She was tired and knew something had to change.

"At the same time I was doing my student teaching, I was doing my voice lessons," she says. "I couldn't sing when I would get to my voice lessons. There was a lot happening. I called my mom and said, 'Will you still be proud of me if I graduate with just my vocal performance degree instead of my two majors?' She called me a big dummy in Spanish.

"She said, 'Of course I'm going to be proud of you. Do you realize how much work you put into this? If it's something you feel passionate about, we will support you.' I hung up that phone still wiping tears from my face, and I wrote my professors to tell them my studies in music education had come to a halt."

López, who moved to Albuquerque during the pandemic, says her family has had the opportunity to see her sing many times over the years. Her mom now always asks one question: "Are you going to die in this one?"

But there's one performance, she says, that always stands out because of her father's reaction. It was early in her career, and the opera was Madama Butterfly, which she was performing with Opera San Jose. Her mom, who had taught her how to harmonize, had watched rehearsals, so she knew what she was coming.

But her dad, José Luis López, was completely bowled over by Puccini.

"I think that story of sacrifice and unconditional love really struck a chord for my family. And at the end of the opera, I was moved to tears," López says. "I'm in my dressing room, and I hear this gentle knock. It was my mom and dad and my two younger siblings, and they started hugging me and tearing up. My dad has always kept to himself. In high school, I was very outgoing. He was the one taking me to dance practice at 4 a.m., and you could feel the annoyance in the air. But he never said anything. I knew Dad loved me, but it was never something he expressed verbally. And this time, he hugged me and said, 'Cecilia, I'm so proud of you,' in the biggest accent. He never speaks to us in English. For me, that was amazing. Because they got it."

López, like many of the heroines she plays on stage, has suffered her share of adversity. She got divorced and lost custody of her child, in part because of her career. She tells people this anecdote in case it can help others: "A life in the arts is so mysterious and so misunderstood," she says. "The judge at the time told me that opera singing wasn't a real career. It was a hobby. I'm able to talk about it and smile through it now, but every contract that I get is like, 'Here's your hobby, lady.' And now my son is going to University of New Mexico and going to pursue a degree in cello performance."

During the pandemic, her career reached another dramatic crucible. She had just moved from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, and performance work started drying up. López, who had played at Opera Southwest before she moved, started thinking about the best way to keep her momentum — then she realized she could do that by marrying opera and mariachi.

She reached out to pianist Nathan Salazar at the suggestion of mutual friends, and together they created a setlist that highlights the music López grew up with and the music she performs now. It was a lifeline, she says, and also a rocket boost.

"I was one of a few opera singers who did that work to stay afloat. Everyone else switched professions or did online schooling to do something else," she says. "But I'm grateful because it gave me the time to fall in love with recital work again. I'd been homing in on all this operatic repertoire, and I forgot what doing recital work is like. It's more intimate; it's more special because you don't get the big sets and the costumes. It's just me and my cast."

López knows she has a different background than many of her peers; she didn't attend Juilliard or a fancy conservatory, and she doesn't have an advanced degree. What she has, she says, is gratitude for her trajectory and pride in the way she's pulled it together.

"People ask me, 'Did opera pick you or did you pick opera?'" López says. "And at first, I would say that I picked opera, because I was the one who wanted to go and do the schooling. But now after all these years and seeing how the dots have been connected, I think it chose me.

"Opera is not something that people who look like me listen to. For us, it's mariachi and the music of the people. And now that I'm an opera singer, I think, 'No, it's essentially the same thing.' Those stories we're telling on stage have a lot of parallels to traditional Mexican ranchera music, and I nerd out whenever I'm put on a platform to share that with audience."